Day 349: Serendipity Not to be Out Played
I had no idea where Tana County was when we set out. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Daily Updates are not edited and function more as daily journal entries – so if the plot seems to be all over the place or missing entirely and the tenses changes faster than a kaleidoscope, well, that's just the way it is.
THE dice narrative I'd planned on spinning for today revolved around the die forcing me to stay one more night, thus leading to the opportunity to party with one of Gaddafi's nieces. However, the call came yesterday afternoon that there would be no party tonight.
Yet, serendipity wasn't to be outplayed by the fickleness of the wealthy; Chris is leaving Lamu Island for the rarely visited Tana County and invited me along.
This morning, I gently remind Cleo that I need to pay for another night's stay on the boat. My belongings are spread across the deck as I repack everything, praying I don't forget any of the essentials. As I'm settling my bill Paolo, who went to town to pick up beans, mandazi, and other goodies for a proper Swahili breakfast, returns.
I should be dreadfully hung over today. Dan and I were up to 4am drinking – polishing off a bottle of Konyagi with a little help and then a bottle of whiskey with almost no help, as well as a couple of beers to round things out at the end of the night.
“Are you on Facebook?” I ask Mini, after nearly a half hour of hesitating. I wasn't getting everyone's Facebook contacts, but I wanted Mini's for sure.
I give Paolo a hug before embracing everyone else goodbye.
“I'll be back in a few months, I think. So, I'll see you all then,” I promise.
I climb down the rails of the ladder into the boat taxi Rasta called for me.
“Fives are hot,” Dan yells from the railing of the Musafir as my boat taxi pulls away.
The buildings on the Lamu Town waterfront slowly approach, the boardwalk is active with men loading coral rag blocks onto donkeys, while kids play in the water among the dhows.
Kids play in the waters along Lamu Town. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
“Normally it's 500, but only 400 hundred for you,” the boat driver says as we pull up to the cement pier, its pillars encrusted with oyster shells and green with algae.
“Fucking expensive,” I unconsciously mutter to myself, as I'm used to splitting the ride with several people and paying 100 or 150 bob each.
“What you say?” he snaps.
“Nothing,” I say, immediately regretting having opened my mouth. I know the Musafir team is going to be living here with these people for several months and that relationships with locals are important. Though I'm leaving, every one of us remains an ambassador for the ship.
I hand the man his money with a big smile, profusely thanking him. Though he responds with pleasant enough words, his mood has soured.
I have about 600 Shilling left in my pocket. There is the chance that the air-conditioned bank in Garsen, Tana, will have a Western Union, but I'm not sure I want to risk it. However, I'm running late. It's 9:50, which means I should have met Chris and his colleague, Codya, five minutes ago.
For a minute, I consider chancing it, but ultimately, I play it safe. Large, loud signs on a seafront bank mark it as a Western Union location, as well as a place you can receive a MoneyGram. The signs are without a doubt one of countless reasons Lamu Town is considered “at risk” by Unesco.
I stuff a wade of 58,617 Shilling into my pocket before collecting my bags at the door [Editor's note: In the previous post Motorcycle Throws Tantrum, it was stated that I withdrew my final funds. However, it appears I only withdrew about 400 dollars, leaving another 560 dollars left in the balance. The error is regretted.]
A couple days ago I sent a message to my Dad:
Would it be possible to send me the rest of the money in my account to Kenya via western union? I don't think I'll need it, but I might.
Isaac stone simonelli
I didn't think I would need it at the time, as I thought I had enough money from the cash I pulled at the Kenyan border to make it to the point that I could sell Rafiki. Once my friend is sold, my pockets will be relatively flush with cash, opening open a few new opportunities before I end up on a jet back to America. Of course, that does require me to find a buyer.
Chris and Codya are standing 20 meters farther down the road near a second pier, where the public boats run back to the mainland.
“Sorry I'm late,” I say. “Just wanted to pop into the Western Union.”
“Oh, I thought you could use this one,” Chris says, referring the Western Union location they're standing in front of.
Down the steps of the pier, Chris takes the lead, batting away an offer to hire a private boat trip back to the mainland.
We take up our post at the back of a new fiberglass boat with an outboard engine, floating among five or six other crafts in the shade of the pier. A boat next to us has a US Aid t-shirt stretched over the engine to protect it.
“I wonder what that's shirts for,” Chris asks. “It just says: 'US Aid / Smile' with a giant American flag below it.”
We laugh about it being an anti-terrorist campaign.
“Like ISIS handing out shirts that say 'Don't Kill Us' – ISIS, to the American people,” I say.
“Somebody probably made a lot of money for the consultation fees for those t-shirts,” Chris points out.
The inefficiency of how grant-run NGOs, such as Chris's, are forced to operator due to rules regulating grants is mind blowing. It's a topic Chris and I have chatted about extensively.
Basically, most NGOs get money from governments and other donors with all sorts of stipulations, including a deadline of when the money has to be spent. As that deadline draws closer, NGOs – Chris has not had this problem yet – are forced to use tons of money ineffectively because in the grant-funded world not using the money is a bad thing. Not only will the money have to be given back, but it will be hard to get the same level of funding in the future.
Once full, our boat zips across the calm water of the channel, endless mangrove forests appear in the gentle muddy banks that emerge as the tide runs out. A large sailing catamaran in good condition sits with its hulls in the mud as we follow a bend in the channel. Marabou storks, which are really feathered pterodactyls, stand like small children in the mud, their heavy beaks occasionally snapping something up from the goop.
I imagined that the mainland was a solid 30- to 45-minute boat road away and that the port would be a bustling little town established to connect Lamu Town's trading center to the interior, as goods were moved from the mainland toward the trade winds of the Swahili Coast.
I imagined wrong.
Our boat hits the muddy sand bank of the mainland hard, driving up onto solid ground so that the craft sticks in place and we can step directly off of it without getting our feet wet. The mainland is covered in the same thick mangroves that dominate nearby islands, the closes of which is only a stone-throw away.
A dirty parking lot propped up by cement pillars that dive deep into the mud below is packed with heavy-duty SUVs. A few rickety shops sell soda, water, and snacks from behind chicken wire fencing, but that's about it for the mainland port.
A man grabs Chris's suitcase and puts it on his head, carrying it up to the parking lot. Suddenly, he's gone.
Chris, slightly concerned but miles from panicking, turns back to see what happened to him.
“The bags already in the car,” Codya tells us.
Chris's driver opens the doors for us and puts my bags in the back of a small green SUV. A few men are standing next to the window on the far side of the car. One of them is wearing a cluster of necklaces. The enormous glass Blue Eye of one of them catches the sun. It's a Turkish or Persian nazar, an amulet, designed to protect a person from the Evil Eye. The two Thai boys I'd taught magic and went climbing with in Chiang Mai had given me a nazar bracelet with small blue eyes on it to protect me on my travels. Though it broke, I've kept it with me.
“I like your necklace,” I tell him.
“I like your necklace. It's very cool.”
The man, with his hair a bit wild and clothes a bit ragged, walks to my side of the car.
“These are from shark back,” he says moving the small, off-white beads made from vertebra up and down the thick cord of the necklace.
It would have to be the smallest of sharks, but then again there are plenty of small sharks out there.
The man starts to untangle the necklace from the three or four others he has around his neck so I can see it better. Instead of showing it to me, he takes it off and puts it in my hand.
“You buy,” he says.
“No, it's okay. I just thought it was really cool,” I say. There is something attractive about purchasing an iconic Persian or Turkish amulet along the Swahili coast. Though such things are sold by the millions to tourists in their native region, stumbling across one out here somehow feels like it celebrates the ancient trade routes.
“Give me 2,000 Shilling,” he says.
“Sorry, I only have 500 Shilling on me.”
“Okay, make it 1,000.”
“I really only have 500,” I say, pulling a 500 Shilling note out of my wallet. All the rest of my cash is sitting in a fat wad in my pocket – 58,000 Shillings.
“Okay, just add 200.”
I show him my empty wallet, pulling out the only other money, which is a 50 Shilling note.
I wouldn't blame him if he walked away from the deal, but he doesn't.
There are brown rust marks on the white cord of the necklace from the metal beads and clasps. I wonder how the nazar made it to him. I wonder if he knows that it's an amulet.
I try to hand the nazar back to him, but he doesn't move to take it. It doesn't appear as if he's in the business of selling necklaces to tourists, but at the same time, he isn't going to miss a chance to cash in on the opportunity.
He takes the money.
“Yeah, I bought it from around his neck. I hadn't wanted to buy it, because I'll never wear it, but I just thought it was cool,” I tell Chris after he climbs back into the car – he was off buying sofa for Codya.
“So why did you buy it?”
“I don't know. It was only 550 Shilling.”
“Yeah, that's not bad at all.”
“There was this one time in Ghana that I bought a shirt off a guy's back. I don't remember all the details to be honest, but it was a shirt I'd been looking for, but couldn't find anywhere. Then, I spotted some guy wearing it. When I asked him where he'd gotten it because I wanted one, he simply took it off his back and sold it to me,” I say.
Sadly, my memory is too fuzzy to answer any of Chris's follow-up questions about the shirt. All I really remember is that it was yellow and was given away as part of some corporate promotion, which is why I couldn't find anywhere to buy it.
It's hard to hear Chris as we talk in the car, his voice muffled by the roar of the wind as it sweeps through the windows. Nonetheless, we chat for a while, his head turned to talk to me from the front seat. Then, as silence sets in, I realize that I have no idea how far we are going. If you asked me to place Garsen on a map, I couldn't.
The mangroves quickly give way to African Doum Palm. The thin Dr. Seus-esque palms split into several spindly trunks winding their way up, sprouting small palm-leaf crowns at their terminal point.
“You see how some of the leaves have been pulled off?” Codya says.
“Yes,” I say, though I've actually not noticed.
“Watch and you will see small rusty buckets to collect with.”
“Oh, the palm wine?”
A barrier is stretched out across part of the dirt road at a police checkpoint. We're waved to the side of the road, opposite a baobab tree. Beneath the tree, there are three police officers wearing camouflage, flack jackets, and carrying AK-47 assault rifles. Two of them lounge on a simple wooden bench not far from a handful of locals selling water and boiled eggs to those stopped at the checkpoint.
I order two boiled eggs split down the center and hit with a heavy dash of salt and this sort of East African salsa, while we wait for the office who collected our passports to copy down all of our details.
“Look at those stellar firearm handling skills. I have second-hand embarrassment for them,” Chris says, watching a female officer, who Codya is certain he knows from somewhere, lean on the muzzle of her gun. If the weapon misfired, the round would go through both her hands and very possibly her head. “This one time, I saw a guy resting his head on the muzzle of his gun.”
Chris, having been in the Canadian Army – no snickering – has a professional understanding of gun handling. However, even to my untrained eyes, the soldiers seemed to be a dangerous mix of awkward and overly familiar with their weapons.
The portly officer who took our passports appears to have gotten bored of copy the details into a tattered notebook. He's stopped writing, instead choosing to chat with a fellow officer. It's hard to imagine how useful it is to have our details in some ratty book in the middle of nowhere, so I can hardly blame him for his lack of interest.
At the border between Lamu County and Tana County, there's an abrupt change in the road. Our car bounces up from the hard-packed dirt road onto asphalt riddled with potholes.
“It's crazy how different the road quality is. I've never understood that,” Chris says.
“I bet the roads fall under county funding. At least some of the roads. I think that's the case in the US,” I point out.
“Yeah, that makes sense.”
It's one of my favorite things about all the conversations I have with Chris, there is this total freedom for both of us to admit that we have no idea why something is like it is and then a total welcoming of possible theories. Also, he seems to usually like my theories, which, of course, floats my boat.
The road overlooks a landscape dense with tangles of acacia and other arid shrubs. The brush stretches out to the horizon. A surprising amount of Elton John is coming through the speakers of the SUV – all selected by our Kenyan driver.
“Can you imagine when the first Europeans landed here and were wading through all of this?” Chris asked.
German missionary Johann Ludwig Krapf was the first European to spot Mount Kenya – 15,199-meter tall stratovolcano surrounded by miles and miles of complete flatness in all directions – but was unable to find the mountain on a return trip. That's how turned around the Europeans were when they first started hacking their way toward the interior.
I cannot imagine.
“So this was the police station where the attack I was telling you about took place,” Chris says. “There used to be burnt cars out front.”
Smatterings of light gray cement dot the yellowish building, marking sloppy patch jobs that cover dents caused by rounds of ammunition pummeling the building.
Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack that left twenty people dead in 2014. Dozens of the militants opened up fire in an attempt to free Al-Shabaab suspects who were in the attached jail.
Deputy General Grace Kaindi described it as a “fierce shoot-out”.
Our vehicle comes to a stop at the checkpoint.
A thin-officer in a flak jacket wanders up to my window wearing a stern face.
“When are you leaving Kenya?” he asks, as he mindlessly flips through my passport.
Up to this point, I've been grinning at the world without a care in the world, simply interested in what was beyond my window. It's a rare pleasure for me to be able to totally relax while cruising through the countryside. Though I love being on my dear Rafiki, there is a great deal of trying not to die that keeps me occupied when I'm on the motorcycle. On top of this, without my drone, for the first time in a long time, there are no gray areas to my presence and travel plans: I am an American citizen with a valid passport and a valid Kenyan visa – it's about as close to invincible as you can feel.
“My flight leaves on June 1,” I say.
“So you have to leave on June,” he asks.
“No, I don't have to leave in June, but I am. You'd have to check my visa to see when it expires, I don't remember.”
Without checking, he hands me back my passport.
“Are you in the army?” he mutters.
“Are you in the Army” he shoots at Chris.
And with that he walks off, leaving me with a stupid grin on my face. There was something adorable about the whole process.
“He was trying to intimidate you,” Codya, explains to us once the car starts rolling again.
Chris and I chuckle in disbelief, as it hadn't occurred to either of us to be cowered by the situation.
We're staying at the nicest hotel in Garsen, Gadeni Palace. I reined in my overly excited imagination about the place when I asked Chris if they had WiFi and he wasn't sure. To be fair, he did mention that “nicest” was within the context of Garsen.
Welcome to Garsen. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
The business district of the town is a strip of beaten down concrete buildings clinging to the road, where traffic is slowed by several large speed humps. Turning off the main road, we pass local Muslim women wrapped in startlingly vibrant hijabs, each rolling several yellow jerrycans of water down the road with their feet.
Our car pulls past a coral rag block wall with sloppy cement mortar oozing out between the blocks and razor wire on top. We come to a stop in a little parking lot with small palms on the grounds of a ten-room, sandy-colored, motel-style establishment.
After a quick shower to cool off, we head out toward the Tana River on foot to search for hippos and crocodiles.
“Welcome, welcome, welcome,” calls out a young man down river from us.
By this time, we've wandered off the road, through some sparse bush, and into someone's fields. The bank slopes steeply from the lumpy, unplanted field into quickly-drying, shallow waters. We're not entirely sure this is even the Tana River, as bramble fences run through it, portioning off what little water there is.
“Perhaps it's to keep crocodiles from attack livestock coming to drink,” I think.
A man, in his thirties and wearing a white polo and clean jeans, waves at us from a junk shack in the next field over. The skeleton of the two-story shack is made from thin branches, the walls a combination of salvaged sheets of plastic and brush. An old couple sits on a split log overlooking the water in front of them, a few chickens peck at the ground.
We're invited to sit on the split log. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
We're invited to sit. The young man introduces us to “mama” and “papa”. The old woman shakes our hands, tightens up her skirt and moves around to the back of the home to leave the four men together to talk.
Chris explains that he speaks a little Swahili, which is an understatement.
“If you don't speak, you stay stupid,” the man, Mohammad, says, translating the Swahili proverb he said moments earlier.
The conversation goes on in Swahili with Chris translating bits and piece for me when a direct question is shot my way.
A loon ducks down, disappearing beneath the surface of the water. Mohammad confirms that it's not the river, but backwaters. The plot in front of us is the old couples. When the water completely evaporates they'll plant tomatoes and other vegetables in the fertile soil – there goes my theories of crocodile barriers and fish farms.
A few more waterfowl poke around at the edge of the water. I've been fading in and out of the conversation, enjoying the sounds of the Swahili words as they play out into the warm light of the late afternoon. I knew Chris spoke Swahili, but I'm impressed with how well he holds up in a general conversation, only occasionally having to ask the man to speak a little more slowly.
“Dumb,” the man says, indicating me. He was trying to explain something to Chris about me, but was failing in Swahili. His fingers come up as if sealing his lips.
“Ah, like deaf and dumb,” I say to Chris. “Mute, because I'm not talking.”
“Oh, he doesn't know Swahili,” Chris says, coming to my defense.
The man gives a big, charming smile.
“So we should speak English.”
“No, it's fine. It's good for me to hear. If nobody speaks Swahili around me, I'll never learn it,” I say.
The conversation runs on and on. I'm eager to get moving again – I still want to see hippos.
“I'll go with you,” Mohammad says.
The Tana River is running low and fast, its waters a fertile red as the surface ripples, catching the light like crumpled foil spread flatted against a stone.
Mohamed asks a man wearing a football costume who is stretching out in the grass near a bend in the river if he's seen any hippos.
His head turns to the surface of the river scanning it, as if suddenly remembering hippos live in the river. No, he hasn't seen any.
“Why you not saying anything?” Mohammad asks me as we continue our walk along the upper bank.
Beyond the upper bank, there is a sharp drop-off of four or five meters as the soft, sandy soil is pulled into the river every rainy season. Though the river is running lower than even the low bank, it will at some point swell up beyond where we stand, spreading out across the flat drylands around us.
“I'm listening,” I say.
“Listening to what? We are not talking.”
“Listening to the wind.”
“What do you listen to the wind for?” Mohammad asks.
It's the third or fourth time that he's called attention to my general silence. I'm happy in the silence and simply don't have anything to say.
“All kinds of secrets,” I say with a laugh.
He lets it go.
A man on a motorcycle that's wrapped in Stars and Stripes pleather, comes to a stop on the windy, dusty path that runs alongside the river and appears to be regarded as a road. He and Mohammad are friends. He's also one of the first subscribers in the region Chris had to his SMS rumor management project.
On the way back, after giving up on spotting any hippos, we part ways with our new Mohammad.
Though Chris and I both anticipated the possibility of him eventually asking for money, it never came to that. After about eight handshakes goodbye, Mohammad heads back to where we found him, which turns out not to be the home of his Mama or Papa, but rather his wife's family friends.
The sun is setting fast as we make our way back to the hotel.
“How are you?” groups of children scream at us as we pass them.
“I am fine,” they reply, before we have a chance to respond.
Their calls become more like mindless chants than greetings.
A flock of little girls comes running out from a small compound of mud-brick homes in a flurry of laughter. Their beautiful white teeth glow as they laugh, but their laughter sounds forced, like canned chuckles from a bad sitcom.
They laugh and laugh and laugh as a way to get and hold our attention.